Saturday, January 24, 2004


I have been thinking about the Petersberg Prize for leadership in ICT for Development (ICT4D). It is a good time for others to do so too, since we are coming to the end of the nomination period for the €100,000 Prize to be presented this summer in Petersberg.

The Prize should probably be for work leading to successes in the last decade or so – it would not make much sense to choose Bell, Marconi or De Forest now, great as their contributions have been in the 19th century. What are the great ICT4D successes of the 1990’s? Are there any yet in the 21st century?

ICT Infrastructure

I suggest that the growth of mobile telephony and the Internet are obvious. In terms of poverty alleviation, however, the growth of coverage of mass media is very important, especially radio, in my opinion.

There were clearly technological factors driving all three successes, and in part all three successes can be traced back to the improvement in cost-effectiveness of electronics – to the microchip! But somehow I don’t think it makes much sense to nominate Intel. My colleague, Olof Hesselmark, has suggested that great credit might go to the Portuguese firm that invented the prepaid card for cell phones.

I would tend to emphasize some major policy reforms related to the so called “Washington Consensus”. Letting the private sector in developing countries drive the expansion of cellular phones and the Internet, especially in competitive environments seems to me to have allowed the rapid growth of the last decade to occur. I know that there was a general agreement, and the ITU, the World Bank group, the U.S. Government and others were supporting this policy. I wonder if there is some individual or organization that stands out especially in leading the policy reform either globally, or in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

In the case of radio, I wonder if it would not be useful for the award to draw attention to the community radio movement. I think low-power stations broadcasting to a geographically restricted local community have an important place in development, especially in Africa where they might serve the many language groups (often groups with low levels of literacy) with audio programming in their own languages. Linking such stations with the Internet might bring the world via transistor radios to the villages. Certainly the availability of low cost micro-radio stations (in a suitcase, or self built) supports the dissemination of radio. I wonder, however, whether it might not also be the result of regulatory reform, opening the spectrum to these stations, and to the social invention of community radio. Perhaps an award to AMARC might be considered.

ICT and ICT-Based Industry Development

Again, there are a few great success stories. The three I’s - Ireland, Israel, and India – developed important software industries. India also developed a large Internet-enabled service industry. Singapore comes to mind as a success story in the development of its computer and computer accessory industries; the story of Hewlett Packard’s Singapore facilities developing better and better printers comes to mind. HP thought to transfer work to Singapore to take advantage of low cost labor, and found instead a partner in technological innovation. But somehow I don’t think HP would be a good nominee for the Prize.

These industries in India now account for tens of billions of dollars per year. There were obviously many people working together to create that economic miracle. But perhaps one could give a Prize to a leading individual or organization to draw attention to the conditions that gave rise to the success, and to their critical role in creating those conditions.

I asked people in India in November what really unleashed the energy in the industry. Of course part of the answer was the general liberalization of the Indian economy. But my Indian colleagues suggested that ICT specific policies were critically important, such as those removing duties on software and hardware, and allowing duty-free status on a much freer basis than in the past. They suggested that there were key organizations that lobbied the government for such changes, and that these organizations should be recognized.

Perhaps China should be given a paragraph of its own. Over the past decade it has shown astounding growth in both ICT infrastructure and ICT industry. Again, the conditions were right because of the liberalization of economic policies, the huge domestic market, the human resource base and other factors. Still, I wonder whether some key individuals or organizations merit special recognition for their leadership of this transformation.


Connectivity and access are not much good without content! So the Prize might be directed to an individual or organization that has lead in making relevant content available to developing countries via ICT.

Agricultural content is especially important, given the importance of agriculture in the lives of the poor, and in the economies of developing nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization , the organizations of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research , and CTA might all be considered for the work that they have done in this respect.

The network of International Medlars Centers might be considered as a candidate for its contributions to the dissemination of medical content worldwide. It has produced virtual health libraries in a score of countries.

I suppose that, in a different way, the opening of the former Communist countries during the last decade greatly enhanced the availability of content to the public. The open media allowed a flow of information that greatly modified political positions and processes. Thus the Open Society Institute and Soros Foundation might be singled out for an award, in that Soros’ program focused significantly on the electronic media, including the Internet.

A little more than one-third of Internet content is in English, and about the same portion is in European languages, especially Spanish and German; an eighth is in Chinese; a tenth in Japanese. Automated translation of content then becomes a major tool in making content available worldwide. Perhaps then Systran would be a candidate for its development of machine translation and its work to put such translation online.

ICT Applications

I have seen “e-government” described as now leading “e-commerce” as the most important application of the Internet. There are some countries and states eligible for the Prize that are widely cited as both using e-government to serve their own people, and serving as a model for other e-government applications, such as Estonia, and Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in India. (States in India have populations larger than many countries.)

One application of ICT to development that seems worthy of nomination is the integrated use of remote sensing, networking, computer models, geographic information systems and other techniques to monitor the food situation and identify risks of hunger and famine. The Famine Early Warning System Network was the first such project to come to my attention. It monitors agricultural and economic conditions in East Africa, Southern Africa and the Sahel, seeking to predict food shortages in time that national governments can step in to avoid hunger or famine. The Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a similar initiative with worldwide scope. A more recent, related initiative is the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS). Supported by an interagency group with 28 agency members, FIVIMS works at both national and international levels.

On the one hand, the examples above I am sure are only a few of the great successes in ICT4D in the last decade. On the other hand, if one is looking for the most outstanding successes, the number should be limited to a few. Join in and add a comment if you know of others that should be considered. Better yet, submit a nomination for the Petersberg Prize.

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